Africa doesn't want your second-hand clothes
If you feel passionate about sustainability and the environment, there is only one answer when it comes to buying new clothes: Don’t. It’s not an answer we want to hear. If we can’t follow this simple directive, we can still do much better. We can start by knowing what happens to the clothes we discard. It’s a system that doesn’t work like you think it does. It’s a system that’s broken.
Fashion trends are accelerating, new clothes are becoming as cheap as used ones, and poor countries are turning their backs on the secondhand trade. We can no longer feel virtuous about bringing our unwanted clothing to donation bins at charity shops. They are hugely overburdened with our castoffs. Last year, thrift-store chain Goodwill reported an uptick in donations from millennials who are looking to offload unwanted products. Some attribute part of the discarded clothing glut to the influence of Marie Kondo. What strikes Joy in her, it seems, strikes dread in Goodwill industries.
Americans buy four times as much clothing now as they did in 1980, according to a report done by thrift store chain Savers in 2017. Much of this clothing gets wasted, literally. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 26 billion pounds of textiles end up in a landfill each year. The clothing industry is second only to oil in creating pollution, according to The World Economic Forum.
This situation is becoming not just an environmental disaster but for many African nations, an economic one as well. Second-hand clothing is one factor in the near-collapse of the garment industry in sub-Saharan Africa. Many African nations were once home to vibrant textile industries. But decades of mismanagement, instability, and increased global competition have taken a toll.
Kenya had half a million garment workers a couple of decades ago. Today that number is in the tens of thousands. The West's cast-offs were so cheap that local textile factories and self-employed tailors could not compete. So in 2016, countries in the East African Community announced that second-hand apparel would be banned from their markets starting in 2019.
Pressure from a US trade organization, which complained that the ban would impose "significant economic hardship" on America's used-clothing industry, led Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to back out of the agreement. Despite sanctions from the US, Rwanda remains committed to the ban.
Ghana’s Kantamanto Market is the largest secondhand clothing market in West Africa, with 5,000 individual shops and a labor force of 30,000. Liz Ricketts has been observing the market since 2011 and published her findings in a project called “Dead White Man’s Clothes”.This is the term for used clothing that originated in the 1960s, when secondhand clothing from the US and Europe started flooding into Ghana. When Ghana gained independence in 1957, wearing “western” clothing was a symbol of prestige, so there was a market eager to purchase it. Secondhand clothing was considered high quality in terms of finishing details, fit and durability. Back then, working in Kantamanto was a dignified job, often a family business that allowed for upward mobility.
Today, around 15 million items are unloaded in Kantamanto every week. With Ghana’s population of just over 30 million people, not all of this clothing can possibly find a home. Ricketts estimates that 40% of the clothing in each bale becomes waste. This waste is dumped in overflowing sanitary landfills, dumped in the Gulf of Guinea or sent to open, unplanned landfills where it burns in the backyards of Accra’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Here I will just quote Ricketts:
There is simply too much clothing. There is an excess of excess and the more we oversaturate secondhand clothing markets like Kantamanto, the more we devalue clothing in terms of real and nominal value. All brands – high and low, first selection and third selection – end up on the floor of Kantamanto soaking up mud and printed with footsteps. Very little is precious because the supply never stops.
I think this deserves to be read twice. Let it sink into your consciousness. It’s a dismal picture, but the people of Ghana can teach us a lot about how to change our habits of overconsumption. Kantamanto’s retailers extend the life of millions of items a month by washing, mending, over-dyeing, ironing, tailoring and upcycling items. Consumers don’t worry about size, taking their purchases to affordable neighborhood tailors to make things fit.
Our patterns of consumption are political. We can choose to think carefully about whether we want to be part of such a wasteful system. Apart from concerns like slave labor and sweatshops, we just can’t sustain a view of clothing as disposable goods.
I’m going to start shopping my closet. I’m going to praise myself for wearing my old stuff, because in the end nobody else wants it. Except possibly my sister, but that’s a whole other story. Go to https://deadwhitemansclothes.org to learn more about Liz Ricketts’ fascinating and important project.